Winemakers who stay put

It’s not surprising that many young winemakers – even those employed at prime estates – have ambitions to make wines for themselves, under their own labels. For those on their family properties, of course, there’s no problem, but they’re the minority; most winemakers are simply employees. And when a better job comes along with more money or prestige or interest they’re generally happy to be up and off.

A few are allowed by generous owners to make their own wines alongside the estate’s – though it’s understandable that many owners are less than keen to have their winemakers potentially diverting some of their attention elsewhere.

So we have, for example, Miles Mossop of Tokara and Anthony de Jager of Fairview making small quantities of fine wine under their own names. Chris Williams, who has done so much since 2004 to bring Meerlust back in line with its fine reputation, has had the understanding of owner Hannes Myburgh in pursuing his goal for independence. While he plans for the future of Meerlust, The Foundry, the brand he shares with a partner, is growing and getting a brilliant image.

Many winemakers with ambitions to own their own wineries (if not their own vineyards) do indeed eventually leave – either struggling by themselves, or taking financial partners. The Swartland is fairly crowded with them, for example: Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Mullineux were all employed by others before setting up shop, and a dozen hungry youngster plan similarly.

This is all understandable and sympathetic, and winelovers have gained immensely. But I also have great admiration for some first-class winemakers who stick where they are. I was thinking about this last week as I sat with Gottfried Mocke, happily tasting through his range under the trees outside the Chamonix cellar in Franschhoek. (In the pic, he’s posing with one of the “concrete egg” fermenters he increasingly uses.)

It’s nearly a decade since Gottfried came here as a very young man. The Sauvignon and the Chardonnay were good wines then; the Reserve versions are now undoubtedly amongst the Cape’s best. So too is the Pinot Noir, and the Troika red blend and Pinotage are close behind. This transformation of Chamonix into one of the indisputable top few dozen Cape wineries has come about through Gottfried’s intelligent hard work in the vineyards as much as his creative sensitivity in the cellar.

Could he easily abandon Chamonix? Especially while there’s more to be achieved? Unlikely. In fact Gottfried has declined at least one glittering and lucrative attempt to lure him away.

It was Gottfried who mentioned to me his respect for the way André van Rensburg of Vergelegen had made things difficult for himself in the short term by insisting on a major replanting of Vergelegen’s vineyards to get rid of the curse of virus-infected vines.

Blustering, outspoken André, superficially so different from quiet Gottfried, is another winemaker (also producing some of South Africa’s very finest) who has shown less interest in bottles bearing his own name than in vineyards reaching their true potential. In fact his opinionatedness does not contradict an essential modesty and a devotion to the land whose essence he tries to reveal in his wines. “Vergelegen is mine!” he has pugnaciously declared, aware that owners Anglo American might disagree. But he’s right, insofar as mere title deeds, like winemakers, are transitory. “It’s not about me”, he says; “it’s the grapes that matter.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 18-24 March 2011

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